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Preston City Council’s plan to return social housing to the city

Posted on - 9th March, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Housing, Preston Council, Preston News, Redevelopment
Horrocks Mill
Horrocks Mill plans

Council housing could eventually be on offer again in Preston – for the first time in two decades – as part of a deal to enable the city’s local authority to provide its own homes to residents.

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Preston City Council has agreed to establish a partnership with housing association Onward Homes, which would see the authority initially acquire up to 20 properties.

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However, a town hall meeting at which the plan was approved heard that the ambition was ultimately for the council to have “hundreds” of dwellings on its books and become a registered housing provider in its own right.

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Cabinet member for community wealth building Valerie Wise told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) she would like to see a return to the days of the city council having its own housing department, overseeing a significant stock of homes for those who need them.

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That was a service which vanished from Preston back in 2005 when the authority transferred its entire housing portfolio of 6,500 properties to a social landlord, Community Gateway Association, after a vote in support of the move from tenants at the time.  In doing so, the council joined many others across the country which, by the 2000s, were bringing the curtain down on traditional council housing altogether.

Preston Town Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston
Preston Town Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston

Now the city is taking the first tentative steps on the road back to owning – and potentially even building –  its own properties, the first of which would be acquired as part of Onward Homes’ recently approved development of 380 dwellings on the site of the former Horrocks Mill, on the edge of the city centre.

That scheme promises a mix of houses and apartments, which the organisation says will include those available for affordable rent, rent-to-buy and shared ownership.

According to papers presented to city councillors, Preston’s aim is to provide “affordable social housing” in order to address the need for more “affordable rented and social rented homes in the city”.

However, there is a distinction between affordable and social rents – with affordable properties being offered at up to 80 percent of local market rates and social units, more akin to what would historically have been called council housing, usually at between 50 and 60 percent of the going rate.

The LDRS understands that no decision has been taken about the split between the tenures within the first wave homes the council intends to acquire, but that the growing need for social rented properties means these could make up the entire tally – or at least a proportion of it, alongside some affordable rented units.

More houses in the overarching affordable category were delivered in Preston last year than anywhere else in Lancashire – in excess of 500, making up a quarter of the county-wide total.

However, as the LDRS revealed last year, a report into the city’s housing needs – compiled before that new high had been reached – calculated that a further 395 affordable homes were required annually.  It also found that around 6,700 Preston households cannot afford property prices or rents in the city’s cheapest quarter of all homes.

Councillors were told at the meeting where Preston’s council housing plan was discussed that the number of people living in temporary homes in the city has more than doubled compared to before the pandemic – from 80 placements in 2019 to 195 last year.

The average length of stay in bed and breakfasts is now 26 weeks, while anybody on Preston’s housing list who is in need of a three-bedroomed home is likely to face a wait of just over 12 months.  The city council expects to spend £506,000 on temporary accommodation in the space of a year.

Cllr Wise told colleagues that the authority was currently experiencing “unprecedented demand” on its housing advisory service from people in need of support when facing homelessness”.

Of the waits some people were enduring for a permanent home, the veteran Labour politician – who led the city council in the mid-1990s – added:  “This is an intolerable situation, which is why we need to see what we can do to improve [it].”

A study into housing needs across Central Lancashire in 2022 described a “double whammy of pressure” on social housing in the sub-region.  First, there are people now requiring social housing who would “never previously have needed it”  – for reasons including the loss of their job or a breakdown in their relationship.

Second, there is “a lack of movement” through the social housing sector – with many residents staying put in their secure tenancies as a result of being unable to afford either to move on to other types of affordable tenure or to get onto the property ladder.

Speaking to the LDRS, Cllr Wise said she hoped the city council’s plans initially modest plans would lay the foundations for a return to council housing on a grand scale – giving people guaranteed standards of accommodation and an alternative to private rented accommodation, whose share of the Preston housing market rose from 11 percent in 2001 to 20 percent by 2018.

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“A registered provider has to…follow certain rules [which] private landlords don’t have to do.  We know there [have been issues with] mould [in private rented properties] – and rents have also been rocketing in the private sector.

“And I’ve got nothing against housing associations – we will be working with one [on this project] – but the great advantage of council housing is that we [politicians] are elected by the people of Preston. If you don’t like what we’re doing, then you can kick us out,” Cllr Wise added.

Nationally, there has been a sharp decline in the supply of properties for social rent, especially following the introduction of affordable rent in 2011.

Around 7,600 new homes for social rent were delivered in 2021/22, making up just 13 percent of all new dwellings in the broader affordable category.  In contrast, approximately 37,700 new homes for social rent became available a decade earlier, accounting for 65 percent of all new affordable housing supply in 2011/12.

WHAT HAS BEEN AGREED AND HOW WILL IT WORK?

Preston City Council has committed £60,000 to drawing up a business case to support its ambition to acquire or develop its own affordable housing.  No budget has yet been set to cover the cost of buying or building any properties.

A memorandum of understanding will be signed between Preston City Council and Liverpool-based Onward Homes, the aims of which are “to enhance and extend the choice, quality and supply” of affordable housing in Preston – and to allow the pair to work together on the regeneration of Stoneygate area, of which Onward’s Horrocks Mill site is a part.

They will also seek to maximise the grant funding available for future affordable home projects in the city and explore options for the disposal of council land to Onward Homes for other affordable housing schemes.

The authority considered – but ruled out – the possibility of building new homes itself on council-owned land, because of the additional pressure that would put on staff resources which are already stretched by the delivery of multiple ongoing regeneration projects.

The new arrangement could also see the city council acquire properties to build up a stock of temporary housing – as well as properties for rent – in order to reduce its reliance on the likes of bed and breakfasts to accommodate those at risk of homelessness.

The tenants of any council housing ultimately developed in Preston would be able to exercise the ‘right to buy’ their properties – as permitted under national legislation – at a discounted rate after they had lived there at least three years.

‘There was a stream running through the kitchen’

City councillors largely endorsed the idea of going back to the future by creating a new generation of council homes in Preston.

Ashton ward representative James Hull recalled the ease with which he had been able to resolve a resident’s appalling living conditions when he was first elected to the authority in 2003 – and when the council still had its own housing supply.

Paying a visit to a young mum with two children, the Labour member was shocked at the state of the family’s privately rented home.

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“They said there was damp in the kitchen.   I went [to have a look] – and this is [the] honest God’s truth – there was a brook running through the kitchen.

“At that time, because we had a council stock of housing – with extremely experienced, wise and empathetic officers working in our housing office – we got that woman a good council house…that was warm [and] central heated.

“We could do that – and I was proud and…delighted that we could,” said Cllr Hull.

Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter welcomed the plans and said that any future council houses must be of “the highest possible standard” – and also zero-carbon.

His party colleague John Rutter warned of the possible “conflict” between the council’s role as enforcer of housing standards and that of future landlord, but was told the responsibilities were kept separate under legislation.

Meanwhile, Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam said she was personally in favour of what the council was proposing, but added that she had not whipped her fellow Tories to support her position.

One of those Conservative colleagues – Sharoe Green ward’s David Walker – said he thought the plans had been pitched “at totally the wrong time”, adding:  “It’s not cheap and money’s not cheap to borrow.”

Fellow Tory Stephen Thompson, who represents Preston Rural North, was slightly more open to the idea, but warned that there were lots of “failures” with council housing in its previous incarnation and asked:   “What is the end game…where is it going to stop?”

However, council leader Matthew Brown said council housing would benefit the city’s diverse communities – and its many key workers.  He said the proposal was a “small start”, but that the authority ultimately “want[s]hundreds” of properties at its disposal.

‘Affordable homes where they are needed’

Cllr Wise told the LDRS that one of the biggest benefits of the council’s plans was to bring affordable housing into central areas of the city, rather than just the suburbs, where much of it has become concentrated in recent years.

Preston planning policy requires between 30 and 35 percent of properties within a development to fall into the affordable category.   With the boom in housebuilding in the suburban north west of the city – where around 6,000 new homes will be built over the 20 years to the mid 2030s – there has been a corresponding explosion in affordable housing in that area.  However, rental rates and purchase prices in those outlying districts provide a higher baseline from which to calculate any affordability discount.

In inner city areas of Preston, where rent and prices are lower to start with, it has sometimes proved more difficult to deliver affordable housing.  As the LDRS has regularly reported, developers of city centre schemes often successfully argue that their projects would not be financially viable if they were obliged to meet the affordable housing quota – meaning developments can be built without any affordable homes being included with them.

Cllr Wise – who has represented the Fishwick and Frenchwood ward since she was re-elected to the city council in 2022 after a 22-year absence – said that affordability is always a relative concept.

“It’s a bit of a moot point really – because what is affordable to some people isn’t affordable to others.

“But as somebody who represents a ward that is [closer to the] city centre, I’m really keen that we have affordable housing [and] social rented housing for people who are struggling [in those areas].”

In a statement, Sandy Livingstone, executive director of property at Onward Homes, said that the housing association has “worked with the council to develop our plans for the area to ensure these meet the needs of local people and align with wider ambitions for the city”.

He added:  “This agreement cements our shared commitment to do more and will help to increase the number of genuinely affordable homes in the area. As we embark on our transformative plans for Horrocks Mill, we look forward to working with the council to enable them to deliver the first council-owned housing in a generation.”

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